Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.
Premiering in 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.
He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.
First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.
No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.
All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.
Let’s break it down:
Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)
The blazing news that stands out from the recently announced Austin Shakespeare season is the return of beloved actor and Universityof Texas professor Fran Dorn in a staged reading of “Antony and Cleopatra” in October (dates to be announced).
Otherwise, the mid-sized theater company splits its main season between the Bard and other classically inspired dramatic literature.
The free Shakespeare in the Park option will be “The Merchant of Venice” in May 2019 at Zilker Park. The Young Shakespeare selection is “Macbeth” in June 2019 at the Curtain, the Elizabethan-style theater out on Lake Austin.
The 20th-century choices are Tennessee Williams‘ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (November-December) and Tom Stoppard‘s “Indian Ink” (February 2019). Luckily, much can be found about both playwrights in the archives of the Ransom Center.
Austin Shakespeare also plans a collaboration with the Austin Chamber Music Festival in the summer of 2019.
Still left on the 2017-2018 docket are the chamber music joint effort over scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (July 22); “Shakespeare and All That Jazz” at Parker Jazz Club (July 8); and the remaining run of its Young Shakespeare “Hamlet” at the Curtain (through June 24).
Tyler Mount, who studied at St. Edward’s University and developed a popular vlog for Playbill.com, took home a Tony Award on Sunday. Mount recently returned to town to emcee the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards.
Although it was hard to pick him out in the acceptance crowd onstage, Mount’s honor came as a named producer for “Once on This Island,” which won Best Revival of a Musical. Austinites Marc and CarolynSeriff also invested as producers in two winning shows this Broadway season, but their names did not appear above the title, so they were ineligible. They actually were named producers last season for “Anastasia,” which comes through town via the Broadway in Austin series at Bass Concert Hall next season.
Mount made a fantastic emcee for Austin’s closest entertainment equivalent to the Tony Awards. He even joked about his possible Tony status during the ceremony. And while we are on the subject, this year’s Tonys were, with one jarring exception, tone perfect. The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who sang “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” had me weeping from the first first piano chords.
Before you know it, Summer Stock Austin will be packing folks into the air-conditioned Rollins Studio Theatre for three shows at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
Last year, we were bowled over by “Annie Get Your Gun” and mightily amused by “Monty Python’s Spamalot” as performed by students and young pros.
The three selections this year:
“The Music Man” (July 20-Aug. 11) Meredith Wilson‘s classic about a con man selling the idea of a marching band to small-town Iowa is an ideal match to the Summer Stock project. Bonus: Top teacher Ginger Morris directs and choreographs.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (Aug. 1-11) This adaptation of the Steve Martin-Michael Caine movie — also about swindlers — is not revived often enough. We admired the David Yazbek-Jeffrey Lane show on Broadway but haven’t seen it since. Dustin Gooch directs.
“Rob1n” (July 24-Aug.11) Every year, Austin national treasure Allen Robertson contributes a new show to the Summer stock season. He worked with Damon Brown on the book for this family-friendly version of the Robin Hood tales — hey, another lovable criminal?).
Robertson’s job? He only wrote the music and lyrics, co-wrote the book and serves as the show’s director and music director.
Tickets are available at TheLongCenter.org or by calling (512) 474.LONG (5664). Also available at the Long Center’s 3M Box Office located at 701 West Riverside Drive at South First Street. For groups of 10 and more, please call 512-457-5161 firstname.lastname@example.org.
From where I sit, “Austin Camerata” translates into “unadulterated beauty.”
At least it did last night when the Austin chamber orchestra played the Rollins StudioTheatre at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
But first, an historical note: Debra and Kevin Rollins, whose gift made the gray box theater possible, adored chamber music. And yet, during the first 10 years of the Long Center, not much of the genre has been heard in their Studio Theatre.
For a concert called “Reinventions,” the room sounded great! And there was enough space onstage to accommodate Dorothy O’Shea Overbey‘s dancers, who performed with the musicians during the final number.
Back to the music: Like other chamber orchestras, the University of Texas-associated string group — led offstage but not onstage by cellist Daniel Kopp — expands on the collaborative dynamics of a string quartet. Their measured romp through Edvard Grieg‘s “Holberg Suite” was precise, proportional and over way too soon.
All else melted away when guest violinist Chee-Yun arrived downstage, her red gown gown splashed against the orchestra’s workaday blacks, her performance lighted to their near darkness. And for good reason, because she could pull all those wild sounds from her instrument for Astor Piazzolla‘s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” These four tangos, composed independently but rearranged to match Vivaldi‘s “Four Seasons,” kept the near-full house on the edge of their seats.
For the final piece, Dmitri Shostakovich’s somber and powerful Symphony for Strings, the musicians formed an arc around an open space for Overbey and her dancers. All of them are choreographers as well, so in sense, it was a collaborative effort not unlike the orchestra’s. Dedicated to the victims of fascism and war, the music is associated with the fire-bombing of Dresden and also could be seen as anti-Soviet. (A lot is read into Shostakovich.)
Mesmerizing — although at times crowded and unfinished due to a very short rehearsal period — the dark dance held together by a red scarf well matched the dark music. Visually, it was most arresting when musicians entered the dancers’ zone.
Give us more chamber music at the Rollins and more smart, collaborative work like “Reinventions.”
Spectrum Theatre Company, the African-American troupe that the late Billy Harden co-founded, will commemorate the Austin actor, musician, educator and leader on June 16-17 with “Juneteenth Chronicles.”
The show, created by Austin playwright Abena Edwards, pulls together passages from more than 250 interviews with former slaves, originally collected in the 1930s by the WPA. Directed by Crystal Bird Caviel, the cast will include standouts such as Roderick Sanford and John Christopher.
Look forward to the staged reading, which is presented in partnership with the Austin Convention Center, at the AISD Performing Arts Center on Barbara Jordan Boulevard in the Mueller Development. Suggested donation: $10. Find out more at spectrumatx.com.
UPDATE: The playwright sent us a sample of the ex-slave narratives with an image of the man interviewed in 1937.
“War didn’t change nothin’. We saw guns and soldiers, and one member of master’s family, Coleman, was gone fightin’ somewhere, but he didn’t get shot no place but in the big toe. Sometimes folks come ‘long and try to get us to run up North and be free. We used to laugh at that! Wasn’t no reason to run up North. All we had to do was to walk, but walk South. We’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free. They don’t care what color you was.” — Felix Haywood, born in Bexar County, interviewed in San Antonio in 1937 at the age of 92.
It started off tentatively and ended magnificently.
“The Mighty Russians, Part II,” a full banquet of symphonic music, opened with Tchaikovsky‘s short Piano Concerto No. 3. Soloist Olga Kern, a dazzling presence onstage at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, seemed content to traipse lightly through the first exchanges with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, which sounded “mighty” right off. Then Kern paused briefly before launching into the single movement’s big solo part. If there was any doubt about her command of this music, it was instantly erased by this far-ranging venture into pianistic possibilities.
The orchestra, cut down to pit size, next gave us four snippets from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Sleeping Beauty,” all part of the “Bluebird” pas de deux. The Austin Symphony doesn’t play much ballet music, except in support of Ballet Austin performances, so this served as a pleasant palate cleanser, especially the flights of fancy from the flute soloist (was that Rebecca Powell Garfield?).
Kern returned for Prokofiev‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 and wasted no time showing her mastery of this extraordinary fast and complicated piece. Conductor Peter Bay made a perfect partner, bringing out all the colors of the symphony while Kern produced sounds from the Long Center’s Steinway that I’ve never heard before. The audience, various in the extreme, jumped to its feet at the end.
What could top that? Wait. I had never heard Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in concert, so I was primed. Almost immediately the rich, demonstrative music, with its flinty hints of modernism and aching references to Romanticism, swept me away. I was transported back to my youthful self first intoxicated in concert by Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” A sense of wonder returned.
This was the way to end a season, with proof positive the Austin Symphony has arrived to the point where I don’t want to miss a single concert in the future.
In the occasion of Zach Theatre‘s first fully staged musical by Stephen Sondheim, “Sunday in the Park with George,” which opens May 30, we republish this Nov. 8, 2009 story that includes my interview with great man himself.
Stephen Sondheim, the creative force behind 18 major musicals, might be the greatest artist Broadway has ever produced.
Consider his music, lyrics and theatrical collaborations over the past 50 years. He transformed the way words go with music during the musical’s so-called Golden Age (“West Side Story,” “Gypsy”). He later fused music and lyrics into darker material (“Company,” “Follies” “A Little Night Music”), which led to his mature theatrical masterpieces (“Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George”) and even his lesser gems (“Merrily We Roll Along,” “Assassins”).
Critics believe his work will survive centuries, if not millennia.
“Sondheim – more than any other composer or lyricist – has given us music and theater that is memorable, challenging, intelligent and inventive, yet emotionally and intellectually satisfying,” says Rick Pender, editor of the Sondheim Quarterly, a national magazine devoted to its namesake. “I do not see this kind of multifaceted genius in any other Broadway artist.”
Sondheim is not so sure about his legacy.
“I wouldn’t make any pronouncements,” he said recently in a rare telephone interview. “Who knows if musicals will be done? Who does the musicals from 100 years ago? They are ridiculous. The songs are good. Not the musicals. You want to listen to an Irving Berlin tune, but not see an Irving Berlin show.”
(“Annie Get Your Gun” might be an exception.)
Thursday, the nine-time Tony Award winner – who also earned an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize – will make his first Austin appearance. He will extend a cycle of public conversations started two years ago with The New York Times opinion writer and former theater critic Frank Rich. At the Long Center, his colloquy partner will be Austin Chronicle arts editor Robert Faires.
Local musical aficionados can hardly wait for the verbal exchange.
“Sondheim represents everything that is good about American musical theater,” says Austin director Michael McKelvey, who recently staged an award-winning “Sweeney Todd.” “He is always original and thought-provoking, a composer with a grasp of all that Western music can deliver.”
Born in 1930 in New York City, Sondheim wrote his first musical as a student whose schoolmates included the son of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder artist had collaborated with composers such as Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers to produce classics like “Show Boat,” “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific.” In one of the happy coincidences of theatrical history, Hammerstein became a sort of surrogate father and oversaw the development of Sondheim’s tender aesthetic.
Although he studied music seriously, it was Sondheim’s lyrics that first drew the attention of Broadway professionals. And, in the postwar period, words made an emphatic point. Hammerstein had already linked the songs closely to the action, so that audiences actually paid attention to them.
“The next big change came with the rock revolution,” Sondheim says. “People started listening to lyrics. Nobody really listened to Cole Porter’s lyrics, except the clever, comic ones. After the pop revolution, people had a lot to say: There was anger and passion – (expletive) the establishment. Before that, lyrics were generally anodyne: ‘I love you darling,’ and all that. I’m oversimplifying, but “”
Sondheim’s lyrics were so adept, so clever, so crucial to each show’s emotional progress, he was recognized as a singular wordsmith.
“I am continually in awe of the multiple emotional layers and thoughtfulness of Sondheim’s work,” says Zach Theatre director Dave Steakley. “The recent spate of stripped-down productions, fewer orchestrations and chorus members, have revealed new truths for his fans and have become new, meaningful works on their own, instead of feeling lesser.”
More than 60 years after penning his first lyrics, Sondheim has collected them in a two-volume book that will include recollections and commentary.
“There are a lot of lyrics and a lot of comment,” jokes Sondheim, one of the few theater artists elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Reviewing thousands of lyrical lines – all stored in the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center – were there any surprises?
“Honestly no,” he says. “Every now and then, I would glow with pride and delight, or wince with shame and embarrassment. But I’m a slow writer. I worked on these things meticulously, so there are not a lot of surprises left. I really know every word.”
Although he had been writing musicals for 25 years, Sondheim did not make his mark as a composer until 1970, with a string of grown-up hits: “Company,” “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.”
“My first exposure to the fully formed Sondheim was when I bought the original cast album of ‘Follies’ in the 1970s,” says Long Center managing director Paul Beutel. “The raw yet soaring emotion of songs like ‘Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Losing My Mind’ – so perfectly captured in music and lyrics – just wiped me out.”
Although musical devotees call these “Sondheim shows,” the artist always emphasizes his collaborations with writers and directors (Harold Prince, James Lapine, etc.) and, especially, his prized orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, whose full-
orchestra sound undergirds Tim Burton’s movie adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.”
“He is a most generous man, a mentor who is always ready to lend his support – creative, emotional and intellectual – to the work of others,” Sondheim Quarterly’s Pender says.
Recently, two of Sondheim’s collaborators, George Furth and Larry Gelbart, died.
“George was an actor,” Sondheim says. “Music meant nothing to him. So writing with him was interesting. That’s one reason the songs don’t always fit into the script. They are commentary; raisins in the cake. But George’s dialogue is extremely brilliant. It’s dialogic.”
Gelbart, his collaborator in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” adapting the Roman comedies of Plautus, understood music, he says.
“In ‘Forum,’ the songs are respites from the farce,” Sondheim says. “And ‘Forum’ is a very tight farce. The songs are breathing places. Otherwise the comedy would be relentless.”
One reason Sondheim’s shows – almost never big profit machines – are regularly revived is they provide peerless opportunities for performers.
“Sondheim’s work demands that a performer be equally gifted as an actor and as a singer,” says director Steakley. “Sondheim’s melodies and harmonies, as well as the speed of his complicated lyrics in passages of songs, are rigorous for a singer to master. Equal to this is the emotional investment and honesty required to convey his character’s multilayered states of being.”
Patti LuPone, Angela Lansbury, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Raul Esparza, Audra McDonald and Elaine Stritch are among the prime Sondheim interpreters. One of Sondheim’s special muses, Lansbury, was in one of his early musicals, and she’s slated to play aged Madame Armfedlt in the upcoming Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music.” British director Trevor Nunn’s restaging of “Night Music,” transferred from London to New York, is simpler than earlier versions.
“The tone is Chekhovian,” Sondheim says. “That’s implicit in the piece anyway. It’s about shadows. But it’s still a comedy, done with chamber music in a chamber style.”
One musical that made a definite impression in high school and college drama departments is “Merrily We Roll Along,” which deals with the fraying of youthful ideals in a tale told backward. Yet it lasted only 17 performances in its first Broadway run. Later, Sondheim and Furth tinkered with it, and Lapine revived it on the road.
“We are satisfied with it now,” Sondheim says. “The problem – and this was true in the source Kaufman and Hart play – the lead is an unsympathetic character you get to like. James dug into it a little more, without softening it. Just helping audiences out. It may never satisfy them. People are turned off by unsympathetic characters. I like them, when something interesting happens to them.”
Although he was pleased with the movie version of “Sweeney Todd” – and he’s in negotiations for films of “Follies” and “Into the Woods” – he’s not ready to make generalizations about the return of the movie musical, or the success of youth-oriented shows like “Glee” and the “High School Musical” movies.
“Mine are not that kind of musical,” he says. “They are not as freewheeling, when the stories are just excuses for the numbers.”
Sondheim is also uncomfortable talking about his legacy, though he would include the composing teams of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), as well as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “She Loves Me”), as ones that will tend to endure beyond our time.
A notorious perfectionist, Sondheim, at 79, can look back with some pleasure on his work.
“Every now and then I see something of mine and say ‘that was good,’ he says. “It takes a long to not to be neurotic about it. Usually, I see only what’s wrong. Now I accept what’s good.”
It’s time. The Austin Critics Table Awards nominations came out this morning.
The gathered minds invented new categories, both under the heading of Theater: Periphery Company, recognizing the theatrical body of work by companies outside of Austin proper, and Improvised Production, recognizing mainstage projects by area improv troupes.
That puts the number of official categories this year at 29 (7 theater, 5 design, 5 dance, 6 classical music, 6 visual arts). Critics also promise at least 11 special citations.